A couple days ago, David Driscoll of K&L Wines wrote an interesting blog post about people taking risks in their wine buying habits. He was talking about it from the perspective of a fear of a bad purchasing decision. But he hit on something in his last line that really resonated with me and my tastes in general, and not strictly in relation to whiskey:
It’s ok to end up with a bad bottle now and again. It’s the understanding of the bad ones that make the good ones so good.
I believe this completely, but I think you can remove “bottle” from that and replace it with “experience” and it works the same. Earlier this year I read Brené brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In a broader discussion about the tendency some people have to try and lessen the sting of negative emotions, Brown stated that numbing the lows also numbs us to emotional highs. That’s stuck with me since I read it.
Never was it more apparent to me how true that was than when our son went into the NICU a few days after being born. I can still remember hearing over the phone at 1 AM my wife’s voice and how shaky she was when she told me. As a brand new parent this was terrifying. We got acquainted with celebrating every small victory in the NICU and the baby steps (pun not intended) that we had to take to get out. Believe me, in the midst of that uncertainty, every little coo and bit of contact was the most electrifying jolt of emotion. (Actually, it still is… )
I love having the occasional whiskey that’s been ranked as terrible. I look for the ones where people use the strongest, most negative language they can, because I know that’s truly testing for the bottom. I feel like people through lack of experience or a desire to appear like they only enjoy the finer things, limit their palate and can’t truly appreciate the nuance of their truly excellent drink. I’m not saying they can’t pull it apart and tease out what’s great about it, but I question how much they truly appreciate it. I feel like some of the more adventurous may even try a couple “bad” drinks and safely retreat to their George T Stagg or Brora, having had a safe experience on the bad side of the tracks.
There’s a movie parallel I like to use in explaining safe-bad versus truly bad. A lot of people accept the idea that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst movie ever made. And it’s bad, for sure. But have you seen Manos: The Hands of Fate? It’s a completely different experience and will recalibrate the low end of your scale. I’m sure there are movies even less redeemable than Manos (it’s quite well known as being really bad at this point), but it stands as a marker of how truly bad things can get. It’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen by a mile and makes Plan 9 look brilliant. I’m advocating hunting down the Manos experience instead of the Plan 9.
In the spirit of truly bad, I’m going to touch on a couple of the very worst I’ve had. For me these are fun to read and write because they demand a deeper level of conviction to convey how awesomely bad they are. I love reading peoples’ notes on these because it encourages people who would normally rate as “good” or “bad” to dig deeper and put words to the horrid tastes they’re experiencing. To see that person apply the same discipline applied to good and great (and average) subsequently is always fun.
Loch Dhu 10 year – The Black Whiskey
This is the Plan 9 of whiskies. A terrible idea executed poorly. You see, a fair number of whiskies use a caramel coloring to get a deeper brown color, which taps into some latent perception of deeper color meaning a more robust, developed, aged whiskey. Fortunately, Mannochmore released Loch Dhu, which proves that dark color doesn’t mean great taste.
The nose was strongly spirity, slightly raisiny, had a salty soy-sauce smell, was stale, and had a bit of brown sugar as well. Not awful, but nothing to seek out. The palate is bland and spirity. It’s murky, flabby, a little sherried, slightly sweet. There’s not much to note because it’s just there. It’s light in the mouth and not particularly warm. It finishes flat, with some raisins again and wet cardboard. It’s also got a slightly astringent, slightly woody, slightly bitter element to the finish which doesn’t wreck it but doesn’t help.
It’s not good, but as I’ve said, this is Plan 9 bad. There’s far worse whiskies out there, and it’s just not worth your time except as a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks bad, smells bad, and just doesn’t have anything happening for it. D+.
Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky
The Japanese are making some really great whiskies these days. I think Suntory Yamazaki 12 and Yamazaki 18 are worth the money and are great values for the dollar. Nikka has produced some great whiskies also (which I think may be getting broader distribution in the US if I read correctly recently). It’s a category that is worth exploring and I encourage you to seek out Japanese whiskies as they present an excellent “third style” to complement Scottish and American whiskies.
Usuikyou is not one of them. Fortunately, you probably won’t find this one. Even if you did, you wouldn’t want to have a bottle of this on hand. This is weapons-grade awful. The nose featured enticing aromas like burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, a massive dose of leather (actually, more like pleather), and had this rubbery new plastic scent, or vinyl that hasn’t degassed. It is incredibly chemical. The palate does not improve: Ashes, that new plastic toy scent, a metallic tang like sucking on a tin can, rubbery notes again, complemented by a weird cloying sweetness. The finish is new plastic, pleather, new leather, a really poorly integrated vanilla note, and ashy metallic garbage. It’s also an eternally long finish. Like twelve hours long: I still had this stuff wrecking my palate at morning coffee. It’s horrible.
And yet, I can’t give this my lowest grade in the book. It’s right on the cusp, I’ll be fair. It is amazingly chemical in taste, but the weird vinyl/plastic note started to remind me of some of the toys I had in the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F because I could find something redeeming about it. However, it’s a terrible beverage and would be worse as a potpourri. D-.
Bowmore 21 (bottled circa 1996)
Mid-90s Bowmore is a contentious point. At some point I’ll discuss an interesting Bowmore that represents a debated element of the “house style” in the 90s. However, I have to be honest that of all the whiskies I’ve had, this particular bottle of Bowmore is the worst.
The nose is revolting. My tasting notes say it simply: “Rotting garbage and farts, feet and a bit of wood.” I assure you there is nothing even slightly exaggerated about this. I looked for something – anything – else. There was only garbage, farts and feet. With a little wood.
The palate was not much better. (Yes, despite the notes I have, I still thought the palate was better than the nose.) I described it as “Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, and dry wood.” Why I prefer vomit covered rotting animals, I don’t know. But apparently it is slightly better. The finish, blessedly short, was dry with strong spirity alcohol notes. Not as awful as what preceded it, but it still has that feet & farts smell.
While I devoted more time to the Usuikyou which probably should be on the bottom of the list, the Bowmore was just more than I could deal with. The garbage notes were just painful, and it just smelled like a bad day at the fraternity house. I seriously thought at one point I might have to puke because it was so instantly and sharply offensive. Fortunately the Bowmore had a short finish. Still, I enter it into the books as an F.
A Toast To The Worst
Take the opportunity to try something awful. And while it’s probably going to be unpleasant, really grab the experience and try and describe it as much as possible. It’ll help you understand what it is you don’t like. It’ll deepen your appreciation for what you do like. And when you go back to the great things you like? You’ll love them even more. (And try to figure out what it is you like about them!)
At a glance:
Loch Dhu 10 year 40% ABV
Nose: Strong spirit, hint of raisins, salty kind of soy-sauce smell, stale, vaguely leathery, low grade sherry note? A little brown sugar on the nose.
Palate: Spirit and not much else. murky, flabby, kind of sherried, kind of sweet, doesn’t really have notes as much as it just sits there. Light mouthfeel, semi-warm.
Finish: Flat, wet cardboard, raisins, earthy. Kind of sweet too, lacking vitality. Mildly astringent, kind of woody bitter but not strong – just perceptible.
Comment: It’s not good, but it’s Plan 9 bad. There are far worse whiskies out there (looking at you, Usuikyou) but this is not worth the time aside from a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks awful, smells funky and just is muddy and indistinct.
Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky 64% ABV
Nose: Burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, rubbery, new plastic, vinyl that hasn’t degassed, neoprene, massive note of leather, incredibly chemical.
Palate: Ashes, new plastic, weird cloying sweetness, metallic tang, and rubbery.
Finish: New plastic, pleather, new leather, poorly integrated vanilla note, metallic, ashy, garbage. Eternally long finish.
Comment: NOT GOOD. Became amazingly chemical. Repulsive yet reminded me of many toys from the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F. It’s really terrible as a beverage. It’d also suck as potpourri.
Bowmore 21 year (ca. 1996 bottling) 43% ABV
Nose: Rotting garbage and farts, feet, wood.
Palate: Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, dry wood.
Finish: Dry, alcohol, not as awful; feet & farts.